The remains of the 19th-century coffee plantations in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra are unique evidence of a pioneer form of agriculture in a difficult terrain. They throw considerable light on the economic, social and technological history of the Caribbean and Latin American region.
The Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in the Southeast of Cuba is a cultural landscape illustrating colonial coffee production from the 19th to early 20th centuries.
The World Heritage site occupies a total area of 81,475 ha (201,330 acres) within the two provinces of Guantanamo and Santiago de Cuba. The Turquino National Park (Sierra Maestra Grand National Park) encompasses the area of the inscribed property located in Santiago de Cuba.
It includes not only the architectural and archaeological material evidence of 171 old coffee plantations or cafetales but also the infrastructure for irrigation and water management, as well as the transportation network of mountain roads and bridges connecting the plantations internally and with coffee export points.
The topography, dominated by the steep and rugged slopes of the Sierra Maestra foothills, speaks to the plantation owners’ (primarily of French and Haitian origin) ingenuity in their exploitation of the natural environment through the sweat and blood of their African slaves.
Individual plantations exist in varying states of preservation from the restored museum of La Isabelica coffee plantation farm to plantation ruins that are no more than archaeological sites. Typically, plantations include the owner’s house, terraced drying floors, production areas for milling and roasting, and workers' quarters.
Other outbuildings such as workshops are found on the larger plantations. The coffee processing system of wet pulping, developed exclusively by the French in this area required specific hydraulic infrastructure of cisterns, aqueducts and viaducts which are still visible in the landscape.
Surviving vegetation illustrates the integration of coffee growing shaded by the natural forest or under fruit trees as well as French-style formal gardens that integrated local flora. The material culture that survived those magnificent coffee plantations raised in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, represent a valuable testimony of the relationship between man and nature.